It's been a decade since I last saw Nutcracker, given by a touring troop from St. Petersburg, and nearly 20 years since I last attended the traditional NCSA production, accompanied by the NC Symphony in Raleigh's barn-like Memorial Hall. Feeling overdue for a Tchaikovsky "fix" and because "'tis the season," I attended the December 10 performance in the Stevens Center. The slightly reduced Winston-Salem Symphony was in the orchestra pit, and the experienced conductor was Peter Perret. According to a note in the superb program booklet, he has led over 200 performances of the ballet, and the local orchestra has certainly played its share of it since the production debuted in 1966.
Despite their intense familiarity with the music, neither Perret nor the orchestra showed any trace of routine dulling their well-practiced performance. The brasses were well under the stage, so the balances were excellent and the string articulation was always clear. Attacks were crisp and rhythms, well sprung. There were numerous fine solos from orchestra principals; those by the horn, trumpet, English horn, oboe, harp, and clarinet come immediately to mind.
The sets and costumes have been updated or replaced since I saw the NCSA touring production in the '80s, but the reappearance of the familiar large grandfather clock with its bright-eyed owl on top gave a fine sense of continuity. Hidden wires still drag the couches and chairs off the stage, and in a small improvisation, one stuck chair was helped along by Paulina Bracone, who replaced the scheduled young ballerina as Clara. The Christmas tree still climbs out of sight above the rear stage. Artificial snow, made from white translucent plastic, fell in abundance and twice nearly spoiled the poise of the fine Snow Queen. A huge wave of fog from some 80 pounds of dry ice cascaded over the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit where Perret wielded two illuminated batons(!). Campbell Baird is credited with the scenery and costume designs, and members of the School of Design and Production made effective sets and gorgeous costumes. The shade of blue that tinged the costumes of the Snow Queen and her court warmed this old Carolina alum. The wide palette of lighting, designed by John McKernon, was most effective, as was its timing.
Some 80 students in each performance use the seasoned choreography of Sonja Tyven and Robert Lingren, which is based on that of Lev Ivanov, who completed the original work begun by Marius Petipa, First Ballet Master to the Czar of all the Russians. Nothing detracted from high standards of performance among the entire cast of dancers, from the very young, whose gambolings and shenanigans were well staged, to the controlled athleticism and grace of the principals. The mock battle between the mice and the toy soldiers came off with flying colors. As Clara, Bracone was as enthusiastic as she was polished. Brian Waldrep fully conveyed the martial qualities of the title character with solid athleticism and was a graceful courtier as he portrayed Clara's Prince in Act II. The wintry wonderland was conjured up by swirling patterns of the dancing Snowflakes, led by Priscilla Cormmelin-Monier as the Snow Queen and Chris Weisler as the Snow King. The high points of Act II were the stylized perfection of the pas de deux with Liza Balough as the Sugarplum Fairy and the subtle support of Jeremy Bannon-Neches as her Cavalier. The latter brought great energy and physicality to his vigorously choreographed solo variation, while Balough's variation was an excellent example of concealed "art" in which all her fluid gestures seemed to take place in a world without laws of mass or inertia. Outstanding among the sequence of condiments was the sensual stylized Middle Eastern languor of Emery LeCrone, the lead harem girl in "Coffee." Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair was the outstanding leader of the "Mirlitons" in the "Dance of the Reed Flutes" (choreographed by Duncan Noble). The broad comedy of Adam Chavis ensconced within the huge Mother Ginger costume was an audience favorite. These were the highlights of a vital and satisfying ensemble effort.